Mathematics as a Plot Device in Media

Mathematics as a plot device in various media such as film and television can be a very effective device, specifically for establishing the intelligence of a character. Herein the use of maths as a plot device in media will be explored.

Mathematics as Example of Intelligence

The great advantage of using mathematics as an example of intelligence is that most viewers cannot tell gibberish from advanced maths. Furthermore, you can prevent those with knowledge of mathematics from realizing how flawed the maths is by obscuring the view of the equation. Of course, there will always be people that pause the screen and try to extract as much information concerning the problem being presented. However, overall, it works well as a plot device. The first example of this is in the film Good Will Hunting, which uses largely mathematics to show that the protagonist is a a ‘genius’.

Good Will Hunting Maths Problem 2

The first thing to note is that the problems are quite difficult to get a good view of, but curiously they are real mathematics problems that the protagonist is solving. That said, they are not ‘genius’ level problems but rather are closer to first and second year problems.

A Beautiful Mind Maths

Another example of this in practice is from the film A Beautiful Mind which follows mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe). While John Nash is a real mathematician most prominently known for his contribution to Economics via Game Theory, very little of the real mathematics is actually shown on film. To the films credit, it does attempt to use metaphor to explain mathematical concepts but their success is limited in exploring the subtlety of the concept. Despite this, Maths is used as a plot device to establish John Nash as something of an oracle, able to solve problems almost through intuition.

As Crime Solving Ability

There are also good examples of mathematics used as a crime solving ability. Take for example the Television series Numb3rs. Numb3rs takes the opposite approach to using maths as a plot device by employing it to explain patterns related to crime. While it is definitely overoptimistic about what sorts of things can be analyzed through maths with so little data, the plots inevitably involve the use of mathematics concepts described in some detail to solve the case. A common staple of the Crime genre is that the primary crime solvers have some special ability that helps them to solve crime. In the case of CSI it is forensics, in Criminal Intent it is psychology and in Numb3rs it is maths.

Numb3rs Maths

As a plot device this works fairly for the show, but stretches believability for the simple reason that too much relevant data is able to be gathered concerning the criminals in too short a period of time.

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